Friday, September 12, 2008

Ring Fences, Rustlers and a global bank insolvency

In this week which has seen so much speculation on the fate of Lehman Brothers, it seems only sensible to review how an international insolvency of a major bank works and what it might mean for international creditors. The insolvency treatment of international banks has remained one of the stubbornly difficult areas of law to harmonise and huge uncertainty and complexity remains. For excellent background, see Cross-border bank insolvency by Rosa Maria Lastra of Queen Mary, University of London.

Although markets are global, and Lehman Brothers operations span the globe, all insolvency is local. The basic premise is that each jurisdiction buries its own dead and keeps whatever treasure or garbage it finds with the corpse. Local creditors get to recover their claims out of the locally available assets. If, and only if, there are any assets left over will international creditors be invited to make a claim for the rest. Europe has managed to harmonise cross-border insolvency for banks under directives and local law to embody principles of universality and unity within the EU, but that only works equitably if enough assets are in the EU when the bank fails, and local insolvency law still applies in all its divergent complexity.

Claims against a bank are deemed located wherever the contract creating the claim is undertaken. If it is under US law then the claimant must look to the liquidator in the United States and assets under his control for recovery. If the claim is in Hong Kong, then the claimant looks to the Hong Kong receiver and assets.

The key to having a happy insolvency, if such a thing exists, lies in ensuring that when a globalised bank goes bust, all the best assets are inside your borders and subject to seizure by your liquidators on behalf of your creditors. Everyone else outside your borders is on their own. As the US dollar is the reserve currency of banking and US Treasuries, Agencies and other assets are the highest preferred asset class, the US is almost always in a good position in an international bank failure.

The principle of using local assets for local recovery is known as the “ring fence” – the idea being that insolvency drops an invisible “ring fence” around any valuable assets at the borders to meet claims arising within the borders. No country is more assiduous in weaving the ring fence than the United States of America. It is a very successful strategy for US creditors. US creditors of failed international banks tend to recover disproportionately relative to creditors anywhere else. The ring fence contains all these choicest assets for US creditors, and all the international creditors are forced to pick among the dross of foreign assets to eke out a recovery, only receiving any residual US assets remaining after US creditors get 100 percent recovery.

Lehman has been deeply troubled and subject to speculation since the early spring. That was just about the time that we started to see a marked sell off in foreign markets where Lehman has long been a major player. Recently, along with intensification of that sell off, we have seen a strengthening of the US dollar and US asset markets.

If one were cynical, and one believed that Lehman was going to be allowed to fail pour encouragement les autres one might wonder if Lehman was quietly bidden – or even explicitly ordered – to sell off its foreign holdings and repatriate the proceeds to asset classes within the US ring fence. This would ensure that US creditors of Lehman received a satisfactory recovery at the expense of foreign creditors. It would also contribute to a nice pre-election illusion of a “flight to quality” as US dollar and assets strengthened on the direction of flow.

If one were really cynical, one might even think that a wily bank supervisor might arrange to ensure 100 percent recovery for its creditors with a bit of creative misappropriation thrown in the mix. Broker dealers normally hold securities and other assets in nominee name on behalf of their investor clients. Under modern market regulation, these nominee assets are supposed to be held separately from a firm’s own assets so that they can be protected in an insolvency and restored to the clients with minimal loss and inconvenience. Liberalisations and financial innovations have undermined the segregation principle by promoting much more intensive use of client assets for leverage (prime brokerage and margin lending) and alternative income streams (securities lending). As a result, it is often very difficult to discern in a failed broker who has the better claim to assets which were held to a client account but reused for finance and/or trading purposes. The main source of evidence is the books of the failed broker.

On the wholesale side, margin and collateralisation in connection with derivatives and securities finance arrangements mean that creditors under these arrangements should have good delivery and secure legal claims to assets provided under market standard agreements. As a result, preferred wholesale creditors could have been streamed the choicest assets under arrangements that will look above suspicion on review as being consistent with market best practice.

If Lehman were to go into insolvency, I will be interested to discover whether US creditors achieve a much higher proportion of recovery than their global peers in other locations where Lehman did business. If so, it will likely be because of the US ring fence and the months of repatriation of assets and funds back into the confines of the ring fence before the failure was finally orchestrated. It will also be because the choicest assets were preferentially delivered to preferred US creditors under market standard margin and collateral arrangements.

Unfortunately, the pace of an international insolvency means that any retrospective evaluation will be so far down the road that I will likely be almost alone in looking backwards to see what the final distribution effects are and what they mean for equitable principles of international banking practice.

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